How to Become an Astronaut

Prepare to blast off.

The U.S. Astronaut Corp has a new look. Seven white male pilots made the first Corp in 1961. Today, 156 men and women are ready for flight. They come from all ethnic backgrounds and professions that include high-school principal, house painter and deep-sea diver. Follow our tips for making the team.

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1. Know what you're getting into.

Setting -- If you become an astronaut in the next 15 years or so, you'll probably land on the International Space Station, an orbiting laboratory/dormitory more than 200 miles (330 kilometers) above Earth. Astronauts will spend at least three to four months growing plants, making crystals and performing other experiments in near-zero gravity.

Space-station astronauts will live close together without showers, gravity and many other comforts. (Yes, they will wash themselves -- with sponges.) But if they're like the current astronauts, they'll be more likely to remember the thrill of the ride, their huge feeling of accomplishment and the one-of-a-kind experiences, such watching the sun rise and set over a round, blue Earth every 90 minutes.

Work -- What would you actually do for those months? It depends on what kind of astronaut you are. There are two different types of astronauts:
1. Flight engineers (formerly called "pilot astronauts") fly the shuttle and navigate the space station. Flight engineers may become commanders. They will also be trained to help with daily activities and perform science experiments on the space station.

2. Astronaut researchers (formerly called "mission specialists") conduct scientific experiments in space and perform spacewalks. They also take care of the less glamorous chores like checking the computer systems, heating up food and housecleaning. Did you ever try to clean up a floating glob of juice?
Pay -- You wouldn't starve as an astronaut, but it's not a way to get rich quick either. Astronauts get paid the same as other federal government workers on the same level. In the year 2000, astronauts will make between $42,000 and $71,000 in a year. And they work hard for it -- in space and on the ground preparing for missions.

Age -- There's no minimum or maximum age for becoming an astronaut, you just need to fulfill the requirements. The average age for acceptance is 36.

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2. Get ready. (It's never too early to start.)

Study science and math -- Astronauts have college degrees in science or engineering. Early preparation helps. Popular fields for potential astronauts: Aerospace engineering, physics, medicine, electrical engineering. NASA looks for people who are doing lab research -- a doctor working in a lab will have better chances than a doctor in private practice.

Be nice to your friends and family -- If you have arguments on the space shuttle, there's no bedroom door to slam shut and no place to storm away to. In choosing astronauts, NASA wisely looks for people who get along well with others.

Know how to do a lot of things -- Astronauts need to know science and math -- and much more. The space station is an international project, so NASA is more likely to select people who've learned other languages and know about history and other cultures. NASA also gives plus points to people who are good communicators -- both writers and public speakers.

Follow what you're interested in rather than trying to cram yourself into the astronaut mold. You never know what skills will be relevant in space. On his astronaut application, astronaut Jerry Linenger listed "woodworking, drafting, carpentry, small-engine repair, electrical wiring, sprinkling-system installation, heavy cement work, plumbing, and bricklaying" as some of his skills. He was grateful for his skills when he spent time on Mir, the crumbling Russian space station. "With the exception of the cement work and bricklaying, all of these skills proved indispensable on Mir," said Linenger.

Stay in shape and learn to swim -- To be accepted to astronaut training, you'll need to pass a tough physical exam. During your first month of training, you'll swim three lengths of an Olympic-size swimming pool in a flightsuit and sneakers!

Avoid run-ins with the law -- A criminal record will keep you out of the Corp.

Scout? -- Boy or Girl Scout membership is not required for astronauts. But strangely, about two-thirds of all astronauts have been scouts. You figure it out.

Develop a strong stomach -- Part of astronaut training is diving so fast in the "vomit comet" airplane that you feel the near-zero gravity of a free fall for 20 seconds at a time -- and you may have to experience this up to 40 times in one day! Oh, by the way, they don't call it the vomit comet for nothing.

Become a U.S. citizen -- NASA Astronauts must hold U.S. passports. Several astronauts are naturalized citizens, including Mike Foale, Franklin Chang-Diaz and Andy Thomas. But if you're not a citizen, you could have a chance of becoming a Russian cosmonaut, a Chinese taikonaut or an astronaut for the European Space Agency.

Do well in school-- Astronauts go to all kinds of colleges, from community colleges to Harvard University. What really counts is that they go to a good graduate school -- or substitute three years of relevant work experience -- and perform very well. The better you do in high school and college, the better your chances of landing a great job or a place in a top grad school.

If you want to be a pilot, learn to fly -- Pilot astronauts need 1,000 hours of experience flying a jet before they fill out the astronaut application.

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3. Get set. Here's what you'll need.

The minimum requirements for becoming an astronaut are:
1. A bachelor's degree in engineering, biological science, physical science or math.

2. Three years of related job experience and/or a graduate degree. A master's degree can replace one year of experience, a Ph.D. can be substituted for all three years. Most astronauts have graduate degrees plus some experience.
3. Pilot astronauts also need flight experience.

Willingness to fill out a lot of forms! You can check out the application forms on the web at: http://www.nasajobs.nasa.gov/jobs/astronauts/aso/astroapp.htm. Or you can send away for an application to:
Astronaut Selection Office
Mail Code AHX
Johnson Space Center
Houston TX 77058-3696

You can send in an application at any time, but NASA only selects every two years. Apply by July 1 of an odd-numbered year -- or your forms may sit unread for two years.

About one in 20 applicants are called for a week of interviews. Among other things, interviewers want to see how well you get along with others, think for yourself and have a wide range of skills.

Perseverance

Only about one in 120 applicants are accepted. If you don't get in, keep trying! Many astronauts apply more than once. One way to up your chances -- get another NASA job in the meantime. Many wannabe astronauts become flight controllers or get other jobs at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. That way, they not only get a chance to work in the space industry, they also can demonstrate how they shine on the job.

To get your foot in the door, check this site to see how to apply for a regular NASA job:
http://www.nasajobs.nasa.gov/how_to_apply/how_to_apply.htm

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4. Go!

The NASA training program tries to get astronauts as close as possible to being in space without leaving the ground. Trainees study science, math, space-shuttle operation and scuba diving. In full-size models of the shuttle and space station, trainees practice skills that include taking out the trash and making dinner. In huge pools they practice spacewalk maneuvers. Mission specialists practice operating the mechanical arm that releases and retrieves payloads such as satellites and space-station components.

Astronauts also learn about most everything that could possibly go wrong -- such as engine and electrical failures or doors to space that become stuck. NASA training sessions are so comprehensive, trainees say that the only things missing are the noise and vibration of launch and the weightlessness of orbit.

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5. Want to know more?

It's all at: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/outreach/jobsinfo/astronaut.html

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A Career as an Astronaut